Changing the societal script may be the answer to an age old problem

rapeRape is Biblical. It clouded the glory of ancient Greece, of the Roman empire. It was treated as a crime against the head of the household (male) where the woman lived – a fine had to be paid to him for violating his property. It was a prominent feature of ancient wars, and it may continue to be a feature of modern wars.

It never goes away, but lately there’s been a boomlet in rape coverage. The UVA / Rolling Stone episode was probably what brought rape back to the headlines. In fact, it’s been on the back pages all along. There are hundreds of thousands of women raped every year in the U.S. – in communities, in uniform, on campus, in their homes.

In a single year the are 12 million people who are sexually abuse/raped. One woman in four will be sexually assaulted. While you read these paragraphs, there will be about 20 rapes.

We’ve gone through an  evolution of stereotypes from a lurking dark alley stranger, to a fraternity jock bonding with his brothers by raping a co-ed.

In the 1980’s the conversation changed almost overnight. Researchers and writers recognized that most rape is committed by a man the woman knows – often in her home and perhaps by someone she has had sex with before and might again. We enlarged our definition to include “acquaintance rape.”

There was a growing body of knowledge and strategies to avoid acquaintance rape. These prevention strategies include assertive communication skills, equalizing power relationships between genders, resisting peer pressure to drink, peer support, self-defense training and more.

Public and private agencies created hotlines, counseling, crisis centers and we made rape prevention a Federal priority. “How we deal with rape” has been  a complicated issue for many years. Lately the conversation has turned extreme:

• Proposals to allow a co-ed to carry a concealed weapon in her purse or backpack as a rape prevention strategy. “These young, hot little girls on campus” need to be able to make sure “sexual predators get a bullet in their head.” (a Nevada assemblywoman, Michele Fiore)

• Invitations to“Refuse to Be a Victim,” sponsored by the NRA and the gun-maker Smith & Wesson (“to all the brave women who have defended themselves with a firearm”)

• Suggestions that a girl gets her very own flask and bottle of gin at her Sweet Sixteen party because a smart girl never lets her drink out of her sight to be sure it isn’t laced with rohypnol (the ubiquitous date rape drug).

• Encouragement for sexually active women to insert Rape-aXe, a vaginal condom raked with excoriating teeth, before going out with men.

• Proposals to change the law so a rapist can sue his victim to prevent an abortion. (a former Vice Presidential candidate)

rapeThese more recent proposals and strategies are more than a little crazy. Regretfully,  they share an essential assumption with the earlier, more “appropriate” approaches. Men will rape and women will have to figure out how to defend themselves – in the streets, at a party, in the office, in uniform, in the courts. Rape is chronic, impervious to change. Rape, the thinking goes,  is here to stay.

The spate of coverage about rape may have signaled a tipping point in how we think about it.

Is it possible to imagine a world without rape? Not now, not yet. There’s an underlying societal “script” that has shaped our belief in the eternal presence of rape. Men are imprinted early in life to dominate, overpower and control women, to accept no compromise, to get as much sex as possible.  They learn how to sexualize violence against women. The script says that men rape. It’s a woman’s job to see that it doesn’t happen to her.

What would it take to change the script, to shake up the conversation? What would it look like if we had no words for it, no concept of it, no experience of it?

Columbia’s Professor Sharon Marcus has issued a clarion call for a new script. She challenges rape prevention to be “extremist” – provocative, arguable, inflammatory and exciting. She urges us all to learn a new language of rape and rape prevention. In her words:

Another way to refuse to recognize rape as the real fact of our lives is to treat it as a linguistic fact: to ask how the violence of rape is enabled by narratives, complexes and institutions which derive their strength not from outright, immutable, unbeatable force but rather from their power to structure our lives as imposing cultural scripts. To understand rape in this way is to understand it as subject to change.

This would be an enormous paradigm shift. It would take the concerted effort of thought leaders, essayist, advertisers, parents, schools, legislatures, courts, coaches, entertainers, all the forces that “structure our lives.”

We yearn for something that could unite these forces and focus their power on a social good. Why not imagine a world without rape?


  1. As important a issue as rape is, it is but one manifestation of character which fails to successfully engage with all others symbiotic or cooperative skill set. The greatest fullfilment of whatever ones goal, is achieved by engagement in a mutually beneficial activity. Dominance and conquering, whether in sex, construction, tennis or dancing has a consequence which is not only immoral but orders of magnitude less satisfying. Young people need to be taught the enormous benefit of respect of a potential partner in a cooperative activity and the failure of the dominant attack.

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